Why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had to happen

Grant Dawson and Nicholas Ross Smith contend that the West’s sweeping sanctions, isolation of Russia and passive-aggressive military support for Ukraine is fundamentally misguided. The problem with the US-led response is that it ignores – exacerbates, even – deep-rooted ontological security concerns behind Vladimir Putin’s invasion

The West’s misperception of Russia

The West treats Russia as if it is a wayward state on the fringe of the West that, until recently, could be Westernised. Russia, in contrast, perceives itself as an enduring great power and guardian of a unique civilisation. Political necessity, from this perspective, forces it to engage in an almost existential struggle to assert its identity and will over the future of Ukraine.

The hope in Washington and European capitals is that the West's disapproval will sway Russia. The loss of the perks and convenience of being linked with the West will, they hope, prove conclusive. Some claim that the condemnation is worldwide. That is probably because the West’s so-called liberal international order is still tentatively in place. But many states in Asia (including China and India) and Africa (despite Kenya’s riposte) are more circumspect in condemning Russia. This reflects the broader political truth that a different understanding of the invasion exists.

Russia perceives itself as an enduring great power and guardian of a unique civilization

There is a dominant focus on Putin’s act of aggression in Ukraine as a hard-to-rationalise move by an isolated megalomaniac. This unhelpfully blinds potential alternative explanations. The fact is, however, that Putin deems the invasion of Ukraine necessary. This regardless of the impact on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. And regardless of Russia’s access to major financial and economic supports like the SWIFT banking network and western commodities.

The issue: ontological security

Putin’s willingness to stomach serious Western reprisals suggests that for him and Russia, the intervention in Ukraine is more about ontological than material security. Ontological security refers to a 'sense of continuity and order in events'. It is 'security as being' rather than 'security as survival'. Insecurity arises when there is a rupture in the continuity and order that defines the 'self'. The troubling aspect is that acute ontological insecurity tends to overtake material security as the most pressing national interest of the afflicted state.

There is a moral equivalency to all social entities' desire for ontological security

Asserting an ontology and having others recognise it is an integral human drive. Collectively, all social entities desire this, too. Common sense suggests it would be illogical for a social entity to be content with inferiority and disrespect. There is a moral equivalency to all such assertions which, if successful, become impositions. (Though whether a given imposition makes the world better or worse is historically contingent and a matter for debate.)

'Intense' political contestation

Since at least 2014, the West and Russia have been engaging in an ever more intense political competition or 'struggle' of wills over the determination of a symbolic object: Ukraine. The issue on the scales is not Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. Rather, it is which side will prevail in the international arena and impose their conception of what is right.

The West is asserting the possibility of imposing its social identity on Ukraine. And potentially, via a kind of normative osmosis, on Russia too. This poses not just a tangible security threat to Russia but also a deeper ontological threat. It challenges Russia’s sense that Russian identity should be deemed positive, if not superior to the West, especially in its self-defined 'near abroad'.

The West has imposed itself on non-Western powers at various times since 1945. The difference on this occasion is that the 'other' is a great power, with enough hard power capabilities to shift the competition from the political to military sphere, while compelling the West to avoid direct contact. The conflict is a consequence of poor leadership on both sides – by Putin and sequential US presidents from Clinton to Biden.

International law cannot be effective

In this case, appealing to international law is illusory and wishful thinking. The putative international law system is not elastic or dynamic enough to cover all situations involving great powers in international politics. A domestic legal system is responsive to political pressures. It can be changed over time so that tensions do not become too great. In contrast, international law, while it retains some rhetorical significance, cannot mediate the underlying power relationship and the real needs of both sides. Such a system does not exist.

International law cannot stop contrary behaviour by great powers. And yet the normative (and socialisation) effect of international law does retain influence. This is why Putin cites international law continually to justify his invasion

Some might claim that laws can discipline the international; outlaw the baser passions that might undermine an integrated, interdependent, and peaceful liberal international order. This is not the case. It has not been apparent in recent years because the only great power that made its own rules was the US. When the US-led West pursues its own interests, it normally refers to 'rules', not laws.)

Once Russia meets its ontological needs in Ukraine, the world will likely look different to Putin. Russia will have won, and the West will be laser-focused on Russia and what it wants. The one ray of sunshine is that, unlike the Cold War, the invasion probably isn't a prelude to Russia extending its reach and influence globally. Russia is not a superpower, as was the Soviet Union. This all but ensures that Russia will bear down and endure the costs imposed by the West. It also practically guarantees that once the war is over, the political struggle – or 'battle' as President Biden put it in 2021 – between autocracies and western democracies will begin once again.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Grant Dawson Grant Dawson Assistant Professor in Social Science and International Politics, School of International Studies, University of Nottingham, Ningbo campus More by this author
photograph of Nicholas Ross Smith Nicholas Ross Smith Adjunct Fellow, National Centre for Research on Europe, University of Canterbury More by this author

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5 comments on “Why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had to happen”

  1. Who‘s ontological security is at stake? Russia‘s or Putin‘s?
    Is it Russia that ‚perceives‘ itself as a ‚enduring power and guardian of a unique civilization’ or the image of Russia held imposed a couple of post-Stalinist imperialists?
    What is this ‚Russia‘ in any case? Are there maybe other possible identities of ‚Russia‘? Are they less accurate because they are not heralded by those currently in power?
    Does Ukraine have a desire for ontological security for a distinct Ukrainian identity beyond being the symbolical object of a Western-Russian struggle?
    Is it maybe even a currently Western-leaning identity? And if so, is it actually a struggle over identity between Ukraine and Russia? Maybe even a struggle between a liberal and an authoritarian version of Post-Soviet Identity?
    Is the concept of identity and ontological security as proposed in the article rather essentialist?

  2. Putin changed many masks on his way to power and during his presidency - he was liberal and west-oriented, idealistic, pragmatic, conservative and orthodox, and now he is looking for "national traitors". Please stop searching for his deep motivations, there's only one: the desire to stay at power as long as possible. All other arguments are just a smoke screen.

  3. The authors, as well as other scholars in IR, have argued time and again that history, perceptions and self-perceptions, and culture matter. And they matter dearly. The serious analyst cannot simply throw these elements out of the window and come to fast-and-dry, simplistic conclusions.

  4. There is no absence of projecting power really ever. If Russia did not act the gradual encroachment of the West would continue unabated. Russia has been pretty clear over the last 20 years what it is and isn't willing to tolerate in its neighborhood. NATO operating with tremendous hegemony in the region created its own reality by which Russia must comply and "play ball" all while ignoring Russia's continual statements of independence and resistance to that world view.

    You can argue against this all you want, Russia is fundamentally concerned for its own identity, its own culture and reality, NOT the hegemonic world view of Western nations and NATO. Of that, Russia has made it clear it wants no part of. Do not expect that to change.

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